How to Save Money on Developmental Editing

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What is developmental editing?

As discussed previously in my post on how to save money on proofreading and editing, developmental editing’s target is the big-picture elements of your story – characterisation, plot, POV, pacing, tension and so on. It wants nothing to do with grammar or correct comma placement.

Developmental editing is quite different to other forms of editing. Particularly because, despite the name, there’s not much actual editing of the manuscript involved. A full edit will involve in-line comments and accompanying rewriting, usually to provide a flavour of the effect of a proposed change has; the editor won’t typically rewrite every recurring issue.

Being the service that offers the most creative input, developmental editing is the most expensive as it requires plenty of mental gymnastics to solve the wider, complex issues your story may face. So let’s discuss some ways to save money, which include:

  • enlisting critique partners and beta readers
  • honing your craft
  • getting a manuscript assessment
  • finding a good fit

Enlisting help from beta readers

For a self-publishing author tight on a budget, it’s worth trying to find a balance of what services you need most versus what you can do yourself, or ask others to do for free (or at a small cost). Each editorial service will add tremendous value, however, so if you decide to commission for each stage, getting as much feedback on your book as possible prior to placing it onto an editor’s lap will lessen their workload, thus saving you money. For developmental editing, beta readers are a great way to do this.

What are beta readers? They’re book enthusiasts who, out of their love for reading, offer to read the early stages of your story and offer feedback on what they like, don’t like, and any issues that stand out.

This feedback can be invaluable and can help you decide the scope of work you want a developmental editor to perform. If say, most of your beta readers love your characterisation and your story, but the pacing feels off and the setting is not strongly developed, you can voice these concerns to the editor and ask them to prioritise those issues.

Mentioning to your editor that you’re mainly concerned with certain areas and asking if they could focus primarily on those is a great way to adjust the scope of the work. The editor may make you aware of any glaring issues in the areas you, and your beta readers, are confident about, and suggest they get involved (with a revised fee). As they’re a professional, they will know best. But ultimately, it’s your money and you can decide what you pay for.

A great group on Facebook is ‘Beta readers and critique partners’, with plenty of helpful members. It’s common for beta readers to ask if you would do the same back, but that’s not always the case. The important thing, in my opinion, about beta readers is that they shouldn’t be professionals (although some may have a decent knowledge of writing craft), so to act as a representative sample of your target audience. Enlist several of them – problems spotted by one may well be down to their subjective taste, but a recurringly spotted issue is a clue that something is wrong.

Beta readers shouldn't be professionals; they should be a representative sample of your target audience.

Improving your craft

Developmental editing is all about your story, so it makes sense to learn how to write one. And there is a wealth of knowledge poured into plenty of books. Here’s some books I recommend you stick your nose into (some of these I’ve rarely, if at all, seen mentioned elsewhere):

  • Save the Cat: Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody (highly accessible book that lays out a clear path of beats your story must hit)
  • The Magic of Fiction by Beth Hill (excellent all-rounder for macro and micro storytelling advice and self-editing)
  • Into the Woods by John Yorke (insightful book about the how and why of structure)
  • Write to be published by Nicola Morgan (if you want to get to grips with the publishing industry, start here!)
  • The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley (arguably the deepest dive into point of view I’ve come across)
  • The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to write the Story Beneath the Surface by Donald Maass
  • The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester (includes excellent guidance and writing exercises. Deborah is excellent at helping you visualise her advice)
  • Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer (another great all-rounder covering storytelling, beginnings and endings, characterisation, and worldbuilding. The wonderful artwork alone makes this worth the purchase!)
  • Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld (an exploration into each POV style and their limitations/benefits)
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King (easily digestible advice and great tips on core writing mechanics)
  • The Planet Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder (how to construct a world for novels, RPGs, video games, or movies which covers almost anything you can think of including biology, history, astronomy, religion, culture, and much more)
  • On Writing and Worldbuilding: Volume i/ii by Timothy Hickson et al (superb exploration on magic systems, empires, and more. The author’s YouTube channel Hello Future Me is full of great advice also)
  • New Worlds series by Marie Brennan (diverse collections of small essays on worldbuilding subjects from an anthropological lens)

The stronger your novel is before your editor gets a hand on it means less time spent hammering and sculpting it into shape. Of course, we all know by now what less time means for your wallet. If your novel is excellent, you may find that a large portion of the editorial report comments on what you’ve done well, which provides validation that all your hard work has paid off. It can be useful to know your strengths as a writer – ones that you may be unaware of! – and knowing these can help refine your work. However, this is extremely rare and your developmental editor will likely have plenty of solid suggestions and advice.

Get a manuscript assessment

A manuscript assessment, critique, review, whatever the editor calls it, are different terminology for the same thing – a report which details what you’ve done well and what could be improved in regards to all the big-picture elements mentioned at the start of this post. Typically, a developmental edit will provide in-depth analysis and in-line comments and revisions throughout your manuscript, along with a report which offers an overview of the main points. The assessment won’t include the former.

The length, depth, and focus of the report varies from editor to editor, ranging anywhere from 10 pages to double (or triple) that. While the assessment won’t offer visible rewritten examples of how sections can be improved, or detailed analysis per scene, it will still provide plenty of insight of the steps you need to take to strengthen your story and make it of publishable quality.

This service is useful even if the aim is not to save money, but perhaps you feel your book isn’t ready for a full edit and you just want some guidance on what’s going wrong so far and how to fix it.

The best part is an assessment will cost you hundreds, not thousands. Then, after you feel confident you’ve implemented the suggestions to your liking, and your book has had another round of beta reading, you can decide if your manuscript needs a full developmental edit. And if you go with the same editor, they may reduce the cost for the second pass of your manuscript.

An assessment will cost you hundreds, not thousands.

Find a good fit

An editor that is a good fit to your type of story and its genre is instrumental. Developmental editing is a hugely creative endeavour and there’s no ‘right’ way to conduct an edit. Most editors list their preferred/specialised genres and most are uncomfortable to suggest improvements to a story in an unfamiliar territory: this is a good thing!

It’s important to know the conventions, tropes, and limitations of the genres they’re working in. And so should you, as to avoid hunting down an editor who specialises in YA fiction when what you’ve wrote is middle grade, or pitching your book as magical realism when what you’ve actually wrote is low fantasy, for example.

While a developmental editor may be comfortable with adapting to unfamiliar work, and will likely still manage to provide excellent advice, the edit won’t be as relevant, as tailored, or as in-depth as one done by an editor who is passionate about your genre. Finding a good fit won’t save you money per se, but it will give you better value for your money, which is just as important.

Final thoughts...

Developmental editing is strongly geared towards the creative end of editing and is, therefore, the most costly.

But there are things you can do to lighten the blow to your bank. As with proofreading and copyediting, it involves you doing the most you can do to your manuscript before you hand it over. The ideas this post has covered are:

  • using the insights offered by beta readers to highlight any pertinent issues for your editor, allowing them to focus on specific areas
  • improving your craft so you nail, at the very least, the basic elements that encapsulates a good book
  • hiring for a manuscript assessment, a service which is significantly valuable while being a fraction of the price of a full edit
  • ensuring your story and editor are a good match to get the best possible value for money
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